“We found the way a child nags isn’t always the same,” says Lucy Hughes, then-director of strategy and insight for Initiative Media. “There’s one of two ways that they nag— either with persistence or with importance.”
Persistent nagging is “really whiny,” according to Hughes. “‘Mommy, I really, really want the Barbie Dream House, wah, wah, wah, wah…'” Important nagging by contrast is more reasoned: “‘Mommy, I need the Barbie Dream House so barbie and Ken can live together and have children and have their own family.'”
Kids’ nagging may sound like a frivolous topic of study, but Hughes’s motivation is dead serious. Realizing that kids want to buy products and are more easily influenced than adults (up to age 8, kids watching TV can’t even tell the difference between ads and programming, according to American Academy of Pediatrics) but usually lack their own money, Hughes invented the Nag Factor.
“Advertisements must be aimed not at getting [kids] to buy things but at getting them to nag their parents to buy things,” as Hughes told Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.
With her understanding of the way kids nag, Hughes then connects each type of nag with a category of parent. For example, “Bare Necessities” parents have money to spend but are unresponsive to a child’s whining. To reach them, marketers will try to get the kids to nag with importance “to show them the value or benefit this product has to them, why it’s important to the child. And in the right circumstances the parent will be receptive to it,” explains Hughes.
Other types of parents, such as “Kids Pals” (younger and more casual parents), “Indulgers” (working moms who buy kids stuff to assuage their guilt for not spending more time with them) and “Conflicteds” (usually single moms who don’t like impulse buying but do it anyway) will be more susceptible to unrelenting whining, that is, to the Nag Persistent.
Marketers like Hughes spend a lot of money and do a lot of work into creating ads that will get kids to nag their parents in just the right ways. And it goes beyond the usual suspects of sugary cereals or toys. Now, ads are trying to get kids to nag parents to buy cars, financial services and yes, even beer. Bakan writes about how he took his son to the National Hockey League Stanley Cup play-offs and his son nagged him to buy a 24-pack of Labatt Blue beer because it came with a plastic Stanley Cup replica.
Labatt’s knows of course that kids can’t drink. But how many adult sports fans are really going to be attracted to a toy Stanley Cup? Bakan thinks that the company knows perfectly well that offering a toy with beer is a sure way to get kids to nag their dads to buy that brand.
Return on investment
But does it really work? Hughes thinks so. “With McDonald’s…parents wouldn’t be going there unless their child nags.” And what about Chuck E. Cheese’s, asks Bakan. “Oh my goodness..It’s noisy, and there’s so many kids. Why would I want to spend two hours there?”
Indeed, according to research by Hughes’s company, it turns out that 20 to 40% of purchases would never have happened without kids nagging, including four out of ten visits to places like Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Of course it’s not ethical, but that’s not Hughes’s problem. She says kids are “fair game for marketers…if we move products…then we’ve done our job.” Another ad exec says that “they aren’t children so much as what we like to call ‘evolving consumers.'”
When parents complain, corporations give their typical response: It’s not our fault, it’s yours. Jill Holroyd of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association told Bakan that “The kids aren’t driving themselves to the restaurants. The real issue, in our view, is personal responsibility. Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children are consuming a balanced diet and getting enough physical activity.”
Just say no — Right?
Bakan isn’t buying the parental-responsibility talk:
It is more difficult to say “no” to a child when the child has been urged by advertisers to question the parent’s authority over food and is persuaded that he or she needs the advertised product. under these conditions, the result of saying “no” is often petulance, sulking, acting out, and family conflict — which is why so many parents are prone to just put the kids in the car and drive to McDonald’s.
Bakan then calls out corporations for trying to have it both ways: “With the industry actually working to incite children to punish their parents for saying ‘no,’ its blaming parents for saying ‘yes’ has more than a ring of hypocrisy to it.”
What’s the solution? Don’t expect corporations to police themselves, but they will respond to sufficient pressure from parents. As a short-term solution, parents should complain as often as they are able to corporations that try to manipulate their kids to nag. Of course, complaining about every slimy ad aimed at kids could be a full time job!
The only practical, long-term solution is better public policy. In 1981, when the Federal Communications Commission lifted restrictions on children’s advertising that it had put in place in the sixties, ads aimed at kids exploded. Now, the average American kid sees 30,000 ads on TV alone each year, according to Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Susan Linn.
Since 1991, Sweden has banned all ads aimed at children under 12. The European Union is considering a similar ban. It’s time for the US to follow suit.
The last thirty years after the FCC ban was lifted have shown that market solutions don’t work. Corporations are required by law to maximize profits to their shareholders. So they will never voluntarily do anything that would reduce sales, including cutting back manipulative ads to kids. The only solution is to change the rules of the game so that the public interest is served.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice*
*Originally posted on Occupy Parenting.